Ultra-lights remain attractive despite risks
TAMPA Even for those without - a fear of flying, the sight of an ultra-light buzzing over the treetops can induce shivers. How can you hop onto a lawnmower with wings and cruise at 200 feet with nothing between you and the ground but aerodynamics and a prayer that nothing goes wrong? Because sometimes things do go wrong. That reality was emphasized this weekend when two ultra-light pilots were killed within hours of each other in Pasco and Hernando counties. William George Athey, 53, of Odessa, died Sunday morning near Gowers Corner in Pasco County. He was trying to land the aircraft at Pilot Country Airport, north of Land O' Lakes, when the aircraft flew into power lines.Later that same morning, 50-year-old Christopher Ambrose Washington of Spring Hill died when his ultra-light aircraft crashed in Hernando County. Witnesses said Washington had just taken off when the ultra-light stalled at 200 feet, spiraled to the ground and burst into flames. During the past 30 years, federal authorities have investigated 264 ultra-light aircraft crashes. A total of 134 people died in those crashes, records show, or slightly more than four a year. Ultra-lights have few regulations. Virtually anyone can hop into the seat and take off, as there are no rules requiring flight instruction. Most people who take to the skies in ultra-lights do complete some sort of training, though maybe not enough to teach all the skills involved in flying. Many of those skills come on their own, sport enthusiasts and instructors agree. Pilots do face some difficulties that only ultra-light pilots face. The slightest shift in wind, unexpected obstacle or mechanical issue can turn quickly into a life-threatening disaster. Ultra-light pilots don't need FAA certifications or licenses nor do they need to pass physicals required of general aviation pilots. Owners do not have to register their ultra-light aircraft or keep and show detailed maintenance records, either. Ultra-lights are relatively safe, though the training requirements should be more stringent, said James Wiebe, owner of Belite Aircraft in Kansas, which sells ultra-lights and other sport aircraft. Most of the time, crashes likely are the fault of the pilot who has not enough hands-on instruction time, he said. "Certification requirements, as defined by the FAA, are at the bottom of the bar," Wiebe said. "To be blunt, there is no certification requirement." More and more people are taking up the sport, Wiebe said, giving his business double-digit growth in sales and deliveries. Customers fit a pretty specific profile, he said. "A person buying an ultra-light, in general, tends to be male," he said. "I don't think I've ever made a sale to a female. They tend to be older, retired but not always; they tend to be people with a passionate interest in aviation." Warren Rahz fits that description. He used to fly ultra-lights and instruct ultra-light student pilots until he opted for a regular pilot's license a few years ago. Rahz said flying an ultra-light, which can cost upward of $16,000 new, is like riding a motorcycle on a country road. "It's exciting," he said. "You feel the air in your face." Even though ultra-light pilots require no formal training, "you would be very stupid not to,'' the Charlotte County pilot said. "It is a very demanding sport," Rahz said, "because you have to be on the ball at all times. You don't have weight or centrifugal energy to propel the plane if something goes wrong." That means if the engine quits, the aircraft falls to the ground. To avoid federal oversight, ultra-lights have to weigh less than 254 pounds and carry no more than five gallons of fuel. There is one seat. An ultra-light can go as slow as 28 mph, "the slowest the plane can fly without falling out of the sky," Rahz said. The aircrafts themselves are "very reliable," Rahz said. "Some people don't realize it, they call them paper airplanes or flying lawn chairs, but they are not. If an ultra-light is built like it's supposed to be, it's done with regular aircraft hardware, all airplane grade stuff." There are no flight restrictions, except the aircraft can't fly in busy airspace, like around an airport. Rahz recalled once flying over the pastures and woods of southwest Florida. "I was just five feet off the ground, hopping over fences and trees," he said. "It was very thrilling – a little unsafe – but very thrilling."
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